Five Star Book: Last Night at the Viper Room

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I picked this up because I wandered into a bookstore in my neighborhood and I had just finished listening to the Next Picture Show‘s My Own Private Idaho episode and I was intrigued by their discussion of River Phoenix’s method acting (and I’m pathologically incapable of leaving bookstores without buying something.)

I thought it would be a pretty straightforward Hollywood biography (a genre I enjoy), but it is actually a really finely crafted exploration of Phoenix’s complicated, brief life, the truly eccentric (at times twisted) family background he came from, and the pop culture landscape he helped create, yet also struggled with.

I have been vaguely aware of who River Phoenix was for a long time. I admire his brother’s work; I had heard of Idaho; I knew he died really young of a heroine overdose. So the first thing this book gave me was an introduction to the myth of River Phoenix. Yes, he was an actor, but he was also an idol, and a vegan, and a hippie, and a symbol of freedom. But a lot of what he was revered for come from his family’s involvement with the Children of God cult. (Check out this documentary for what that means – warning its disturbing, about children especially.) And even after they left the cult the Phoenix family (originally Bottom) never rejoined or approved fully of mainstream culture. (Except, they were happy to let River go earn money to support the family.)

OK, I’m not going to recap the whole book, but it’s a fast read, and you should check it out. But the best part of the way the book is constructed is it explains this myth of River Phoenix, and celebrates his talent and passion for the causes that were important to him, without letting readers forget that at the end of the day, River was just a kid (he was 23 when he died) and romanticizing his death – as even his own family did – does the human being he was a disservice.

As his first love Martha Plimpton said right after he died:

He’s already being made into a martyr. He’s become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very fucked up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions.

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River and Martha

The book also puts River’s life and career in context, giving us glimpses of his contemporaries from Tom Cruise & Brad Pitt to Leonardo DiCaprio & Johnny Depp (who was there when River died). This strategy works not just to add color, but to allow for speculation about what Phoenix’s career may have looked like if he hadn’t died without it feeling forced.

Bottom Line: Great read about cults, Hollywood, & pretty boys with substance. What else could you want?

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